Anti-choice…because of compassion?

Here’s a terrible story that shows just how fucked up a person’s idea of compassion can be.  A woman named Crystal Kelley agreed to be a surrogate mother for a couple.  The couple would get a healthy child, and Kelley would get a $22,000 fee for carrying the baby and the joy that comes with knowing she’d help others.

Then, a tragedy.

With the parents standing behind her, the ultrasound technician at the hospital put the wand on Kelley’s stomach. The test confirmed her worst fears: It showed the baby did have a cleft lip and palate, a cyst in the brain, and a complex heart abnormality.

The doctors explained the baby would need several heart surgeries after she was born. She would likely survive the pregnancy, but had only about a 25% chance of having a “normal life,” Kelley remembers the doctors saying.

In a letter to Kelley’s midwife, Dr. Elisa Gianferrari, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Hartford Hospital, and Leslie Ciarleglio, a genetic counselor, described what happened next.

“Given the ultrasound findings, (the parents) feel that the interventions required to manage (the baby’s medical problems) are overwhelming for an infant, and that it is a more humane option to consider pregnancy termination,” they wrote.

Kelley disagreed.

The parents offered Kelley $10,000 to abort the child to spare it a life of suffering.  Kelley refused, telling the parents it was not their place to play god.  Despite her principles, she made a counter offer at one point.

Kelley had a counter offer. “In a weak moment I asked her to tell them that for $15,000 I would consider going forward with the termination,” she said.

What I heard here was “It’s not your place to play god!  …but I’ll do it for $15,000.”  It’s an odd corruption of one’s moral senses to take a stand on forcing a child into the world what will most likely suffer for a while and then die, as if that were a testament to Kelley’s incorruptible morality, right before engaging in extortion that depends on the compassion of the supposedly immoral ones.

The parents hired a lawyer who accused Kelley of attempted extortion (I wonder why).  Then Kelley got the news that in the state of Connecticut, the couple who hired her were the fetus’ legal guardians.

In an affidavit filed in Connecticut Superior Court, DePrimo described what happened next.

DePrimo received a phone call from Fishman telling him the parents had changed their minds. They now planned to exercise their legal right to take custody of their child — and then immediately after birth surrender her to the state of Connecticut. She would become a ward of the state.

DePrimo explained to Kelley that this was no empty threat. Under state law, they were the parents, not her, and under Connecticut’s Safe Haven Act for Newborns, parents can voluntarily give up custody of a baby less than a month old without being arrested for child abandonment.

Kelley couldn’t stand the thought of the baby in foster care. She’d heard the nightmare stories.

She felt like her back was up against the wall.

So Kelley moved to Michigan where the carrier is the legal guardian to deliver the baby.  She said of her decision…

“Once I realized that I was going to be the only person really fighting for her, that Mama bear instinct kicked in, and there was no way I was giving up without a fight,” Kelley said.

Kelley then put the child up for adoption.  While she wanted to protect the child in the womb, that apparently didn’t extend into the child’s life beyond the womb.

When the baby was delivered, just like the doctors had said, there was a lot wrong.

The baby’s medical problems turned out to be much more extensive than the ultrasound at Hartford Hospital had revealed.

She has a birth defect called holoprosencephaly, where the brain fails to completely divide into distinct hemispheres. She has heterotaxy, which means many of her internal organs, such as her liver and stomach, are in the wrong places. She has at least two spleens, neither of which works properly. Her head is very small, her right ear is misshapen, she has a cleft lip and a cleft palate, and a long list of complex heart defects, among other problems.

Baby S. — her adoptive parents are comfortable using her first initial — has a long road in front of her. She’s already had one open-heart surgery and surgery on her intestines, and in the next year she’ll need one or two more cardiac surgeries in addition to procedures to repair her cleft lip and palate. Later in childhood she’ll need surgeries on her jaw and ear and more heart surgeries.

Her adoptive parents, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their family’s privacy, know Baby S. might not be with them for long. The cardiac procedures she needs are risky, and her heterotaxy and holoprosencephaly, though mild, carry a risk of early death, according to doctors.

If Baby S. does survive, there’s a 50% chance she won’t be able to walk, talk or use her hands normally.

In what sense is it compassionate to allow that fetus to grow into a child to suffer and then, to likely die?  You can’t tell me it’s because the child will occasionally giggle, thanks to the painkillers allowing it to.  If creating children that will giggle is your focus, you’d be cranking out babies like crazy.  This just makes no sense to me.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Constance Reader

    I also don’t understand how “compassion” encompasses forcing an infant to endure multiple surgical interventions that do not even hold much if any chance of even prolonging life, much less improve quality of life. This would be inexplicable even if there were no additional medical conditions for which there is no intervention possible (heterotaxy and holoprosencephaly) and which will likely lead to early death anyway. But these additional conditions are present.

  • Stevarious

    I shudder to think of the incredibly short life filled with pain that this child could have been spared.

    I mean, come on. If these people are right, doesn’t the fetus’ soul go straight to heaven, which is literally the best possible existence for all eternity? Why would you want to delay that for a few years of agony and hardship that the child can literally never even understand?

    (Which of course begs the question, why ever give birth to a child at all – surely direct conveyance to the best possible existence for all eternity is the kindest gift you could ever give anyone… but then, consistency of though has never been a theistic strong point.)

    • Art Vandelay

      Why would you want to delay that for a few years of agony and hardship that the child can literally never even understand?

      My guess is to protect their own salvation.

      • Glodson

        Not all believe that the fetus’ soul goes straight to heaven.

        There’s a few rationalization. Some would say the fetus doesn’t really have a soul yet, but it is still wrong to abort because it is still murder. Odd, but it sidesteps the problem of god being an evil bastard.

        Others do the whole soul goes to heaven thing.

        But a few, and some of the most vocal, say the soul goes to hell because the fetus never accepted Jesus. Making god the most sadistic monster imaginable.

        • Art Vandelay

          At the orientation for my daughter’s baptism, the priest was explaining to us why we’re doing this, and he told me that as of that moment, the church views my 6 month old infant daughter as nothing more than a demon. It’s a pretty surreal experience when someone who claims to be able to dictate morality looks at you holding a baby and calls it a demon in a completely non-sarcastic manner. I have to write that a dude a thank you letter because he sent me hurtling towards atheism.

          • Glodson

            I don’t remember paying attention much to the priest when we had our daughter’s baptism. This was before I reached the age of Reason myself.

            Mostly I was watching my daughter, who was about 8 months old, playing with the water in the baptismal font. Being a baptist, I found the whole ceremony both interesting and pointless.

  • Glodson

    I feel ill.

    This surrogate is a selfish and vile woman. She needlessly caused pain for her own greed, and then exercised a means of control just to fuck with the parents. She needlessly caused pain for this child that was born, a child that is going to live with the suffering that Kelley doesn’t have to face. She doesn’t have to care for the child, she doesn’t have to experience the pain.

    All this could have been avoided. But she needed 5,000 more dollars to play god.

    I am disgusted.

  • Doug B

    The surrogate made the mistake of believing her uterus was her own after she sold it. She had not right to force the parents to have the child.

    It amazes me people can call that compassion.

    • mythbri

      Um, no. Despite the fact that her actions were despicable, and in my opinion she absolutely made the wrong choice, her uterus still belongs to her.

      Look at it another way: If she experienced life-threatening complications during a surrogate pregnancy, would the biological parents still have the right to force her to attempt a delivery that could kill her, because she “sold” her uterus? No, they would not.

      She acted horribly, but she still owns every part of herself.

    • Azkyroth

      I’m sorry you’re too fucking stupid to realize that a choice can be within a person’s rights and yet still despicable.

  • Jacob

    This honestly just hurts to read.

    I honestly thought that someone’s greed would never extend this far.
    15 grand or she delivers a world of suffering and pain upon an innocent family? What kind of fucked up person does it take to do that to people?

    This woman could’ve spared them all from this. Instead, she didn’t.

    This isn’t compassion. It’s fucking evil.

    • Glodson

      Yea, it hurt to read.

      The only hope I have is that maybe she’ll defy the odds, and medical science will come through for the child, and she’ll have a happy life, and bring happiness to that family.

      Sadly, the odds are not good for that. And this suffering will be caused because of this surrogate’s greed.

  • BethE

    So, wait, am I reading this right? The parents were going to give the kid up for adoption, to the State of Connecticut, but the surrogate says no, goes to Michigan where she has power…and gives the kid up for adoption anyhow?

    What the fuck?

    • theAtheistAxolotl

      I don’t know for sure, but it sounded like the parents were going to leave her as a ward of the state (foster home) rather than lining up an adoption beforehand, which the surrogate did?? I’m not sure though, so please correct me if I am wrong.

      • Kat

        But that still wouldn’t make sense. That would mean that these people were willing to pay $10,000 to convince her to abort, but wouldn’t line up adoptive parents beforehand (or allow the surrogate to do so). That scenario doesn’t strike me as particularly plausible.

        • Rovin’ Rockhound

          I’m guessing the parents didn’t think / attempt to line up adopters beforehand because of the extreme likelihood that the baby would die.

      • Caitlin

        The child has spent most of her life in the hospital. By making her a ward of the state, the government would pay for all the child’s health care, which is undoubtedly in the hundreds of thousands (or more) at this point. Most health insurance won’t cover that kind of ongoing expense. I know other parents of severely disabled children who have done this to ensure that their child had access to medical care. The child does get a foster parent assigned who is trained in caring for medically fragile children. It is not expected that the child will have a long life, but it will be a frightfully expensive one.

  • John Horstman

    So… Kelly is probably a dick for forcing a seriously disabled child to exist (within our present culture, it’s almost impossible – is impossible? – to take a stand on this issue that doesn’t have some seriously problematic implications; briefly, you’re either asserting that you should determine what genetic factors qualify a person for existence or not i.e. eugenics, or you’re asserting that creating someone only for the purpose of them suffering constant pain and torment i.e. a life composed entirely of torture is a dandy thing to do), but the couple contracting the use of her uterus is pretty fucked-up too. Coercing abortion (or attempting to do so) is just not okay, even in the context of a surrogacy contract like this. It’s still Kelly’s body, even if she’s been hired to use it to perform a service for someone (like pretty much any job), and she maintains a right to stop working, as with any job (obviously she then won’t be paid). If you have a job that you can’t walk away from, we call that slavery, and it’s not okay. It’s Kelly’s body, and it her choice whether she wants to continue to use it to gestate a fetus with severe developmental abnormalities.

    • Glodson

      My problem is that the parents offered her money as compensation for getting an abortion. I think that makes sense. The surrogate was paid as a means of compensation for the pain and suffering she would endure during a pregnancy. She performed a service, carrying the child to term. It is her body, but their child.

      Then they offered her more money for the abortion. She said no. I don’t have a problem with her saying no. It is her body, she can elect to carry the child to term or not. The problem is that she took the pregnancy hostage, she wanted more money.

      That’s my problem. Her resolve to protect life would have been abated for 5000 dollars more. She didn’t do it to protect the child, but to get more money. It is a crass act. A disgusting act. If she had decided that she couldn’t bring to child to term with the defects and this went against the wishes of the parents, I would have agreed with the surrogate. If she had just wanted to carry the child to term against the wishes of the parents, I would have agreed with the surrogate. But the power-play for the purpose of greater profit? That’s disgusting.

    • Andrew Kohler

      “…within our present culture, it’s almost impossible – is impossible? – to take a stand on this issue that doesn’t have some seriously problematic implications…”

      I absolutely agree: this is a horrendous, heartbreaking situation with no good answers. Let’s hope that medical advances will allow Baby S. to live a good life.

      I would feel very differently about Kelley’s actions if she had taken on care of the baby herself. But I could understand someone in this scenario thinking that the baby deserved a chance at life, despite the odds being against the child, yet not feeling him- or herself capable of providing adequate care for a baby with such severe problems (many, many, many kudos to the parents who took on this task with Baby S). But saying her principles could be bought for five grand more? It would be one thing if the parents had offered more money and she’s buckled; as Bertolt Brecht said in multiple works (I’m thinking of The Threepenny Opera and The Good Person of Szechuan), only people who have enough money can worry about principles and morality. But for her to make the counteroffer herself?

      There are so many reasons why this story is excruciating. Maybe it does belong in a Brecht play.

      One quibble: I wouldn’t characterize this as “anti-choice,” although it is against the choice of the biological parents. As others have noted above, it was Kelley’s body and therefore her choice. Unfortunately, I can’t say, all things considered, that her choice was too admirable.

  • Stogoe

    So…The couple wanted the surrogate to give birth, and then give the child up for adoption. So the surrogate fled the state, gave birth, and then gave the child up for adoption?

    I don’t get it.

  • CottonBlimp

    I want to add the point that a lot of people born with disabilities feel very uncomfortable about the whole pre-emptive abortion of children with health problems thing. I don’t want to give credence to right-wing rhetoric, I know perfectly well this is done for the sake of sparing a child a sub-optimal life and not any reason of eugenics, but people with health problems and physical/mental impairments generally don’t take to the idea that their lives aren’t worth living.

    • baal

      Excellent point. I like to think that most folks understand the distinction between a fetus with serious problems and living adult who have disabilities but have trouble keeping their language appropriately nuanced. Talking about the former can be very personal for the later.

  • Rovin’ Rockhound

    If in Connecticut the couple who hired the surrogate are the fetus’ legal guardians, does her fleeing to Michigan make her a kidnapper?

    I’m guessing that, thankfully, it does not, but it makes me wonder about the legal framework around surrogate pregnancies. How much can the legal guardians demand that the surrogate do/go through for the fetus? Can they demand that she exercise every day and accuse her of endangerment if she doesn’t? What about something actually harmful, like being exposed to second-hand smoke? Can they dictate that the fetus receive certain treatments that the surrogate might not want (even if they don’t harm her)? What happens if the fetus dies in an accident when the surrogate put herself in danger (riding a bike while pregnant, say)? What happens if that accident happens in the neighboring state, with different laws, even if she’s not a resident there?

  • Jaime Wise

    Poor, poor kid. I know a family that has a toddler with heart problems, it’s gut-wrenching for the whole family. I would agree with the above statement that this isn’t exactly “anti-choice” although the surrogate seems to embrace a “life at conception” system. This does raise some very important issues about the legal ramifications of surrogate pregnancy, and the intersection with informed consent and child custody. As a side issue, has there been any research done on the relationship between parental instincts and anti-choice beliefs? While I disagree strongly with anti-choice laws and proponents, I could see how the instinct to protect children can easily cause confusion, even apart from a religious context.

  • RTH

    In this particular case the use of “anti-choice” as a substitute for the more common “pro-life” doesn’t make sense. The surrogate mother made her choice.

    • Nate Frein

      She made a choice she had no right to make. She contracted her parental rights out to the couple. It was their choice that should have been respected.

  • M

    I have read, and been unable to confirm, that the surrogacy contract included a clause stating the surrogate would abort in case of severe medical issues. Take that with as much salt as you like, but it sounds like the contracting couple did think things through ahead of time and did include this possible outcome into the contract. That means the $10,000 they offered her was above and beyond what they had to do- the surrogate straight up broke her contract when she refused to have the abortion.

    There’s still no easy choice here. This just adds another wrinkle into an already complicated, heartrending scenario.

    • AmyC

      That clause is not really valid though. Nobody can sign away their bodily autonomy rights. She didn’t break her contract, because that part of the contract is null and void. It’s great that the biological parents thought of this ahead of time, but it should have been discussed more as a real possibility so they would know what the surrogate woman’s feelings were on the matter. After all it’s just as unethical to force somebody to have an abortion as it is to force somebody to remain pregnant.